Friday, February 21, 2014

Trail heads to Butterfield station ruins

Summer wildflowers in bloom at the Pinery Station ruins.
Photo courtesy Guadalupe NPS.
Map of Pinery Trail, courtesy Guadalupe NPS.

Short hike through desert
offers glimpse into history

Along the Texas-New Mexico border, families can step back into the Old West and experience the remoteness of what once was a welcome sign to travelers: a Butterfield Stage station in the Guadalupe Mountains.

The 0.75-mile round trip Pinery Trail marks a great day hike for families at Guadalupe National Park. The trail leads to the ruins of the Pinery Station, a once favored stop on the original 2,800-mile Butterfield Overland Mail Route.

The best time to visit the national park is autumn. High winds are common during spring, and summer temperatures typically are above 90 degrees with thunderstorms and lightning common.

To reach the park, take U.S. 180/62 either north from El Paso or south from Carlsbad Caverns. Either way you approach the park, you’ll get a feel for what traveling across the stark and forbidding Chihuahua Desert was like in olden days. The park is an hour from Carlsbad, N.M., and two hours from El Paso, Texas. Still, that’s fairly fast. During the Butterfield Overland days, Carlsbad to Guadalupe was a 12-hour trip and El Paso to Guadalupe took 23 hours.

Watch for the signs to the Pine Springs Visitor Center, turning west/northwest from the main highway. Park in the visitor center lot. The trail leaves from the lot’s north side and passes the visitor center's east side.

Mountains and flowering cholla
Directly ahead in the distance is the southern end of the Frijole Range. Hunter Peak, at 8368 feet, is the highest mountain in the range and dominates the vista. Guadalupe Mountain, at 8749 feet, is the highest point in Texas and rises to the west.

The fairly level, paved trail soon curves east with a dry wash to the left/north. Surrounding the trail are typically browned desert grasses and creosote; if visiting during April through June, you’ll spot cholla in bloom.

As the trail approaches the main highway, it splits. Going left/north takes you to the ruins of the old Pinery Station, among the route’s few remaining, though all that’s left here are interlaced slabs of limestone in a U-shape (Please keep children from climbing the walls, as they are fragile.).

Though the Butterfield route ran for only four years – from 1857 until the start of the Civil War – it is famous as the first transcontinental postal service. It connected Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, ferrying mail, freight and passengers east to west in 24 days in an around-the-clock journey. At that time, mail between the two ends of the continent had to be shipped by boat to an overland route in Panama and then by water up the Pacific coast. The transcontinental railroad wouldn’t exist until 1869.

Stone markers
After the flat, treeless and increasingly dry plains of Oklahoma and Texas, the Pinery was a welcome sight for travelers where water, food and rest awaited. The station was named for pine trees growing nearby thanks to several springs in the area. The temperature also was a little cooler; at 5,700 feet in altitude, it was the Butterfield route’s highest station.

The station remained open for only 11 months, though. Authorities moved the Butterfield route farther south to the Davis Mountains, as Mescalero Apaches posed a threat to stagecoaches in the Guadalupes.

Returning to the trail junction, continue straight/south toward the highway. At trail’s end are two stone markers. One honors the Pinery Station and was erected by Texas in 1936. The other was placed in 1958 by American Airlines for the 100-year anniversary of the Butterfield route.

Head on back the way you came and stop in the visitor center for exhibits about the Guadalupe Mountains. If staying at the park’s campground, Guadalupe offers the National Junior Paleontology Program for kids. Also, leashed dogs are allowed on the trail.

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.